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  • Interview with women's health advocate Christine Baze

    UR Chicago / Sounds section

    Interview with: Christine Baze
    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    Christine Baze wants to reach every “woman and every man who has a woman in their life that they love” so that she can scare the hell out of them. With good reason -- she's trying to prevent other women from suffering as she did in 2000, after being diagnosed with cervical cancer and having a hysterectomy 10 days later, throwing her life and musical career into disarray.

    During recovery, Baze learned about cervical cancer and HPV (high-risk types of the virus cause cervical cancer and low-risk types cause genital warts). She also watched Harold and Maude, a film famous for its humorous morbidity and spirited, 79-year-old Maude. Inspired by Maude's yellow umbrella, Baze began playing music again and decided to incorporate cervical cancer awareness into her message. She started the nonprofit organization Popsmear.org and the Yellow Umbrella tour, an annual musical benefit that educates women about preventing cervical cancer.

    HPV is extremely common -- almost 80 percent of women will get the virus by the age of 50. It gives no symptoms and is transmitted through sexual contact. Annual Pap tests are supposed to catch precancerous cells but they don't always do so, and Paps don't test for HPV, so it's important to get both the liquid Pap and HPV test. “People say, 'It's too invasive to get in the stirrups or get a finger up my butt,'” Baze says. “But you know what's really invasive? Getting a radical hysterectomy or internal radiation. Getting a Pap or an HPV test -- that's going to save your life.”

    Having HPV doesn't mean you'll get cervical cancer: The immune system usually fights off the infection. But when high-risk types of HPV persist, precancerous cell changes can occur and cause cervical cancer. However, because it is one of the few types of cancer for which the cause is known, Baze says it's beatable. “We've got the answers and we can't say that about any other cancer.”

    Baze's initial reaction to her own diagnosis was disbelief. “I was healthy and having the time of my life,” she recalls. “After the disbelief was incredible horror and anxiety.” But her compassion made her an activist. “Cancer disempowers you because your own body is betraying you,” she says. “But after chemo I felt so empowered and started getting onstage saying, 'Hey ladies! Pay attention! This can save your life.' It worked -- and now I'm in my fourth year of touring around the country doing essentially the same thing.”

    This fall, Baze and headliner Kaki King (previous lineups featured Ben Folds and the Samples) will perform in 35 U.S. cities, including Chicago. The tour is also sponsored by companies doing work related to cervical cancer, such as Digene, the makers of the HPV test.

    Baze, whose new album, Something New (Lime Green), mixes jazz with electronica, says her musical sensibilities shifted post-cancer. “I was trained as a classical pianist and did that for 20 years, then just before cancer my music had a nonsensical, whimsical attitude,” she says. “Now the songs come from a place of deep appreciation of my life. These days I think about the gift of cancer, the enlightenment that comes with it.”

    The tour reflects the same spirit. “We're celebrating the passion of music and the passion of life,” Baze says. “Even the venues and promoters have been so supportive; these guys come up to me at the end of the night like, 'Hey Christine, what's that test? HPV? I gotta tell my wife.' And they write it on their hand to remember, which is so cool. If that happens once every show, everything I'm doing is worth it.”

    Words: Gretchen Kalwinski

    The Yellow Umbrella Tour hits Schubas (3159 N. Southport; 773/525-2508) October 14; Something New is out now

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